Rafa Benitez | The devil is in the detail

“Details. Little things can make a massive difference.”

Rafa Benitez on Monday Night Football

Rafael Benitez was the special guest on Monday Night Football this week, and it made for fascinating viewing.

The former Liverpool, Chelsea and Newcastle manager joined Jamie Carragher and David Jones in the Sky Sports studio for West Ham’s clash with Arsenal at the Olympic Stadium to discuss everything from the managerial vacancy at Everton to his team selection in Istanbul.

Arsenal arrested their alarming slide by coming from behind to beat the Hammers 3-1 away from home, but it was the analysis in the studio that were most enthralling.

Benitez, who currently manages Chinese Super League club Dalian Yifang, offered a timely reminder of why he is one of football’s leading tacticians.

This was football punditry at its best, with over-the-top opinions and headline-grabbing hot takes eschewed in favour of measured tactical analysis and informative insights.

Benitez covered a wide array of topics past and present with his former player, providing insightful details about past matches and incidents, as well as discussing his managerial possibilities moving forward.

The 59-year-old Spaniard poured cold water on reports linking him with an immediate return to the Premier League, citing his happiness with his project in China, having been linked with the vacant positions Everton and Arsenal in recent weeks.

“Obviously in the future I would like to come back to the Premier League, but at the moment I must be very clear, there is no chance I will come back now,” he stated.

Benitez left Newcastle last year after guiding the Magpies to a 13th-placed finish, and the experienced manager had kind words for his successor.

“I’m really pleased they are doing well and I’m really pleased for Steve Bruce because he’s doing a great job.”

Benitez explained why the current Newcastle players are suited to playing in a back five.

“Schar is a player who has quality on the ball so he has more freedom to go forward and play from the back.”

“Lascelles in the middle was strong and could be good in the air. Dummett on the left side, he’s quite clever. He was the one who could play as a left full-back to cover Ritchie when he was going forward, or he could play from the back.

“For these three players it was really good. Yedlin who is really quick and Ritchie who has a lot of energy were giving us the width.”

Interestingly, he didn’t rule out managing the Magpies again in the future.

“For sure,” he replied when asked about a possible return.

“I am quite lucky because I have very good relationships with Liverpool fans, Valencia fans, Napoli fans the same, Newcastle United fans the same.”

Perhaps more surprising was Benitez’ comments on Everton.

The Spaniard refused to rule out managing the Toffees at some point in the future, referencing his “great connection” to the city and his friendship with both sets of Merseyside fans.

The former Real Madrid boss also apologised for previously referring to Everton as a small club while Liverpool manager.

“I made a mistake when I said it was a small club,” he said. “I wanted to say it was a small team as, in the game, they had one chance and were too deep. I didn’t want to say it was a small club.”

Moving across Stanley Park, Rafa also offered an assessment of what makes Liverpool so special under Jurgen Klopp, and backed the Reds to end their title drought this season.

Carragher relished the chance to grill his former manager on Monday Night Football.

Benitez discussed why the European champions are so efficient, and why teams find it so hard to play against them.

“They have the goalkeeper and the defenders,” he explained.

“They have the full-backs who go forward and the strikers have pace and ability. The midfielders, they press all the time. So as soon as they attack you, if they give the ball away, they are pressing you.

“So it is very difficult to counter-attack, it is very difficult to create something. If you are a team that has plenty of possession, they are so aggressive it is not easy. If you are a team that wants to play counter-attack, they are so quick.”

Benitez also highlighted one chink in the league leaders’ armour, and explored how it can be exploited.

He revealed that he previously guided Napoli to victory over Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund by targeting the space in behind the Dortmund full backs.

Klopp’s full backs also play high up the pitch at Liverpool, something which Benitez tried to use to his advantage while manager of Newcastle.

“At Newcastle, we were trying to run behind them but they were so quick that we couldn’t get past them. If you have the right players with the right movements and the right pace, you can exploit those spaces behind.

“But they are so good, it is easy to say here. It is very difficult to stop them even if you know that.”

Carragher clearly relished the opportunity to quiz his former manager about a number of tactical decisions during Liverpool’s historic Champions League run – and ultimate triumph – in 2005.

Benitez breaks down his tactics in Istanbul

The former Reds defender was particularly interested in Benitez’ starting eleven for the final against AC Milan at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul.

Carragher discussed his surprise at learning that Steven Gerrard was being moved deeper into midfield to partner Xabi Alonso, a decision which came at the expense of Dietmar Hamann in order to accommodate surprise selection Harry Kewell.

As the Sky Sports pundit rightly pointed out, the team picked by Benitez was one which had never been played together before (or indeed after) the final in Turkey.

Carra revealed how Reds captain Gerrard divulged the news of his positional switch and Kewell’s starting berth because the Scouse duo were sharing a room ahead of the final.

Benitez, it seems, is always one step ahead.

With a wry smile, the Spanish manager revealed that he often disseminated information like this in a bid to make his players think and talk about upcoming games.

Benitez was full of praise for former Australia international Kewell, who he described as a key player for the Reds.

“I had a lot of confidence in Harry Kewell,” he revealed.

He says he so opted to start Kewell so that the former Leeds winger could allow Liverpool to hold the ball up, with Gerrard supporting the attack from a deeper position.

While Benitez concedes that the change didn’t work, but said that the fault did not lie with Kewell.

“In the end, it was a mistake. Not because of Harry, but because of the position of Kaka. He was killing us behind the lines, because Stevie would go forward. I thought we could control him with the two midfielders.

“But when we went forward, there was space behind. Stevie was a box-to-box midfielder and Xabi is not the quickest.”

As can be seen in the video below, Benitez and Carragher then gave their respective takes on the infamous half-time interval at Ataturk Stadium, which was intriguing to watch.

Benitez outlined the reasoning behind his half-time changes, describing the need to move to a more compact back three and introduce Hamann in midfield in order to curb the influence of Kaka, who was at his devastating best in the opening 45 minutes.

The rest, needless to say, is history.

Liverpool emerged a different team for the second half, and produced one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time to overturn a three-goal deficit and win on penalties.

They say that penalty shootouts are a lottery, but that’s not quite true where Benitez is involved.

And so we come to the standout moment of the night.

The former Magpies manager’s approach to spot kicks is the perfect microcosm of his incredibly detailed approach to football.

“We had control of the penalties,” Benitez says.

He explained how he used to take notes on any penalty shootouts he watched while in Spain, whether the match was taking place in Europe or South America, which he entered into an ever-evolving database.

“Any country, any game, I was taking notes.”

Benitez says Jersey Dudek, the hero of the iconic shootout, had a detailed knowledge of every Milan penalty-taker apart from Jon Dahl Tomasson.

“We won the Champions League, and people say ‘oh you were lucky’. No, we won it because we had more control of that. The year after, we won the FA Cup with another goalkeeper. Why? The same thing.”

Benitez also discussed the Gunners’ miserable start to the season, the need for Nicolas Pepe to maintain his momentum after an eye-catching display against West Ham, and helped Carragher to analyse the Manchester derby.

The former Premier League manager was passionate, informative and illuminating throughout the night’s coverage.

MNF can feel bloated at times, but Benitez – and the always brilliant Carragher – made every minute of analysis worth watching on Monday.

More of the same please. 


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